Shepherd’s pie

Tonight we’re having shepherd’s pie for dinner – real shepherd’s pie with lamb, not minced beef which of course is cottage pie. When I made it earlier I had fresh meat which I cooked with onions and other vegetables, but when mum used to cook it at home it was always made with minced cooked meat left over from the Sunday roast. I don’t now remember whether it was minced beef or minced lamb, probably either but we always called it shepherd’s pie. I guess the mashed potato topping was also left-over, maybe mum cooked extra for the day before’s meal, because she knew she would be using it the next day. Mum always put a dollop of tomato sauce in and crumbled a coupe of OXO cubes before adding left-over gravy. It was always brown and crisp on the top, and I used to save that till last because it was the most delicious part!

I was wondering if it was a very old traditional meal, but then it occurred to me it would only date back to the seventeenth century when potatoes first arrived over here. Before then any pies would be covered with pastry. Apparently, so I’ve discovered, the first meat underneath and mashed potato on top meal was called cottage pie – this name for it was recorded in the 1790’s, shepherd’s pie wasn’t named (in print anyway) until 1854. Eliza Acton has a dish which has a potato pasty lid, but her recipe is a little confusing, involving a metal mould, so I will have to read it again more carefully.

At first when potatoes were used as a pie crust, the bottom and sides of the dish were also lined with the mash – I guess it made a small amount of meat go further; this was the sort of humble but delicious dish which agricultural workers would have – how the posh people missed out! At first any meat covered with mash and baked was a cottage pie, but now it’s as I mentioned, lamb or beef – and also fish pie is made with a mash topping. My husband sprinkles cheese on the top of the potato to give a nice golden crust – and  if you sprinkle breadcrumbs and cheese this is  known as a Cumberland pie. That sounds tasty, I must try it next time!

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